Girl power

Chadha and Caro's coming-of-age tales strike a chord with audiences worldwide

Mention the phrase “Cinderella story” and helmers Niki Caro and Gurindher Chadha make clear their dislike of it as a description of their coming-of-age sagas of girl empowerment: “Whale Rider” and “Bend It Like Beckham,” respectively.

At the same time, neither expected how popular these movies would be when they were filming.

“As a filmmaker I loved the story,” Caro says. “But we don’t dream of success,” she adds, referring to herself and Chadha, whose paths crossed in Los Angeles as the Kiwi came to town to do publicity for “Whale” while the Brit was finishing up filming on her latest pic.

Fourteen years in development, “Whale Rider” is Caro’s second feature after 1997’s “Memory & Desire.”

Her script of Maori writer Witi Ihimaera’s novel “Te kaieke tohora” took only eight weeks to complete. When she sent him the script, she says, he was pleased with the screenplay and offered no criticism.

That was not the case with other Maoris who objected to a pakeha, a New Zealander of European origin, making a Maori film. “It was painful to me at the time,” she adds.

“What I was going through was what I was putting this child through,” she says, drawing a parallel with her protagonist, who tries to win her grandfather’s approval to become leader of her Maori tribe by refusing to back down from his opposition.

Chadha went through something similar while filming “Beckham.” Having made “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993) and “What’s Cooking?” (2000), she wanted to make a commercial film about a Brit of Indian origin.

“A commercial movie with an Indian girl in the lead, on paper didn’t look too inviting,” she says.

Yet when the movies were released both helmers found that they struck a chord with audiences. “People in New Zealand took it as their own,” Caro says. And similarly for Chadha, U.K. and Indian viewers took ownership of “Beckham.”

When Caro took “Whale Rider” to Toronto in September 2002, “it was the first time anyone had seen it (outside New Zealand) and it got a standing ovation,” she says. “Then when we went to San Sebastian they absolutely got it. It shows how needed it is; for little girls, their voices are important, what they think. Also for little boys.”

She thinks what was appealing about the two movies was their being “culture specific. Don’t dumb down the culture, do quite the opposite, respect for others. We’re all fundamentally the same.”

For Caro, getting funding for her film was not difficult. The New Zealand Film Commission put up 50% of the money on condition she get the rest elsewhere. That came from Germany. But financing didn’t come easily to Chadha, she says, not dwelling too much on the topic.

With U.S. distribution (Newmarket for “Whale” and Fox Searchlight for “Beckham”) both films are out on DVD after healthy runs at the theater: “Whale” hit the $40 million mark for worldwide B.O. and “Beckham” reached $33 million, considerable takes given the fact that “Whale’s” budget was $4 million and “Beckham’s” $5.5 million.

Both studios are also hoping for some Oscar attention.

Fox Searchlight is making a push in all categories while Newmarket is seeking screenplay, director, supporting actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes), score and maybe even best picture.

Additionally, Chadha says the success of “Beckham” has resulted in the improved quality of scripts sent her.

Up next for the Brit helmer is post-production on “Bride and Prejudice,” a Bollywood-style tuner that also reflects the musicals she watched growing. up.

She describes it as ” ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘Grease’ meets Bollywood.” The film, lensed in Britain, India and the U.S., features Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai along with Martin Henderson, with Pathe and Miramax having come aboard fairly early on.

Caro is getting ready to adapt the novel “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox, another Kiwi. However, the tale is set in Burgundy, France, and concerns the 55-year friendship between a man and an angel.

Meanwhile she’s enjoying doing the awards-season tubthumping in L.A. with her 4-month-old daughter, as is her star, Castle-Hughes.

“I looked down from my hotel and saw her getting into a car that is bigger than her house,” Caro says, laughing.

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